Labour eyes miss action

June 23, 1995

Panic-stricken manoeuvres within the Conservative Party to escape blame, bribe voters or try a new leader, reveal more clearly than anything else could that Labour is riding for victory.

What would a Labour government mean for further and higher education? The party's intentions are unclear. They may remain so. Tony Blair's speech today at the Institute of Education in London is to be mainly about schools, where the votes are, though he will have useful things to say about reforming post-16 qualifications.

Labour's further and higher education document still shows no signs of surfacing, so what straws can be gathered about intentions there?

After schools, the party's policy emphasis is heavily on training. This could be good news for further education. "We will," Bryan Davies, further and higher education spokesman, told the CIPFA conference last week, "ensure that further education finally leaves behind its Cinderella status". It is not yet clear how this will be done but the Learning Bank idea now under scrutiny is looked to as the fairy godmother.

Where does this leave higher education? Certainly further down the priority list. On financing, Bryan Davies declared again last week that Labour is "resolutely opposed" to top-up fees charged by institutions. Higher education must remain "free at the point of use". Students should not, however, be too quick to take comfort. "At the point of use" does not preclude contributions later. And institutions should be more worried. First, such contributions would go to the Treasury, not to them, giving the Government continued control over funding. Second, the party's determination implies a willingness to remove institutions' present freedom to set fees. That would require legislation which would seriously erode institutional autonomy.

Where Labour is more explicit is on the vexed question of governance. "There will have to be reform of the governance of further education colleges," Mr Davies said last week. "The Labour Party will seek to ensure that all the social partners are effectively represented on college governing bodies and that democracy is constitutionally structured into the sector as a whole." And he went on, "We need to put in place a democratic structure at which strategic planning decisions are taken and collaborative frameworks developed with industry, other education providers - particularly higher education institutions - government departments and other agencies." In higher education too there are to be "flatter modes of management and shared decision-making structures".

This is ill-thought out: it does nothing to address the problems inherent in bringing about change. It is on the contrary redolent of old Labour style respect for producer priorities. The party sees further and higher education as the engine for industrial, economic and social regeneration. That is flattering and exciting. Higher and further education can indeed drive regeneration - but only if they have the freedom and ability to do so.

The risk is that Labour, eager to make political capital out of sleazy scandals, will install a series of regulations for the governance of colleges and universities at local level, and will limit institutional autonomy at national level so that institutions' ability to respond is hampered. Those threatened by change - and change always threatens someone - will be able to resist in the name of academic freedom and democratic governance, and institutions' power to take action will be curtailed. It is time Mr Blair turned attention to this sector.

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